From Simon Goldhill's review of Ruth Webb's book on ekphrasis and rhetorical theory, BMCR 2009.10.3
"For some time now, there has been a profound disagreement rising to the surface in Classical Studies, and this admirable book should bring it to a head. The swelling row, sometimes conducted in rather hissy tones, has a specific casus belli, but the implications are extremely broad indeed; and, since they concern the very status of rhetoric as a training in the ancient world, they touch all classicists, especially in the literary, artistic and cultural historical spheres. Let me try first to say what I think the disagreement is and why it matters before I turn to explain why this book may consequently be important for the development of our field.
It is best to start with the casus belli. Some of the most interesting work in recent years on classical literature, both in relation to the arts and in relation to narrative, has focused on ekphrasis. It is invidious to single out particular works, but Don Fowler's work on description and narrative has been particularly influential, as has Jas Elsner's on Roman viewing, or Froma Zeitlin's on the theatre, or a string of fine studies of Hellenistic epigram from Britain, America, France, Germany and Italy. "Art and Text", and "Description and Narrative" have become major fields where sophistication of approach has gone hand in hand with fine, detailed literary analysis. Throughout this work, the term ekphrasis is generally used, with varying degrees of self-conscious historicization, to mean the verbal description of a work of art, from a painting to a city--and there is a specific genealogy of such descriptions starting from Homer's Shield of Achilles, moving through Hesiod's Shield of Heracles to fifth-century theatre and on through Hellenistic epigrams, epic and pastoral to Latin examples--the Aeneid and Catullus 64 in prime place--right up to Christian and Byzantine material, especially descriptions of church buildings. One such ekphrasis caused Libanius (1.41) to have a critical fit against the unfortunate Bemarchios for rambling on about pillars, trellised courts and the like. A cultural history of a discourse of viewing has been articulated for which ekphrasis in this sense has been integral and essential.
The trouble is that the ancient sense of the word ekphrasis does not refer solely or primarily to the rhetorical description of a work of art. Its use in a technical sense in the rhetorical treatises of the Roman Empire refers to an emotional style of writing, which brings a scene to life before the eyes of a listener. It is closely related to enargeia. The examples that the rhetorical handbooks give, suggest battles, seasons, storms, plagues, as paradigmatic subjects for student exercises. The test-cases are usually prose and from the historians or rhetoricians rather than the poets (with the obvious exception of Homer). So some critics have responded to the contemporary work on ekphrasis as part of a discourse of viewing by declaring that such usage ignores or is ignorant of ancient usage; that it invents a genre where none is recognized in the ancient world; and consequently distorts the ancient understanding of description as a mode, which has a psychological and rhetorical framing that must be determinative. Rhetorical training is the grounding of Greco-Roman intellectual comprehension of things, and thus is would be rash indeed to ignore such a frame. The phrase--and by implication the category of--ekphrastic epigram, declares one critic in nominalist fervour, is a modern invention.
Now there can be no informed classicist who would not agree that the study of rhetoric was basic to elite education in the ancient world (and probably from the end of the fifth century BCE); that rhetoric informs the prose and verse of our elite texts; that rhetoric was integral to social advancement; that rhetoric was an integral element of the furniture of the ancient elite mind. But how this undoubted influence is to be comprehended, and what the role of the rhetoric manuals is in relation to the practice of texts, is far less clear. Here the battle lines have been drawn up often in deeply aggressive opposition. Against the suggestion of Francis Cairns that genre is a time-free zone and that the third-century Menander Rhetor gives the rules by which we should understand Augustan and even Hellenistic poetry, critics have been quick to retort that it is simply crass to suggest that genres don't develop and change over time. Why should a third-century hack be anything but a crass guide to the profound poetry of Virgil and Ovid? The untenable rigidity of Cairns results in a brusque dismissal of the handbook of rhetoric, for all that critics might agree that rhetoric really, really matters.
So one particularly telling test-case for the relation between ancient rhetorical theory and cultural production is ekphrasis. It can be shown that the modern use of ekphrasis is indeed modern in as much as its restricted sense of "a description of a work of art" is a nineteenth-century coinage, broadly popular in Classics only in the last quarter of the twentieth century (as Webb neatly does). It can be shown too that ekphrasis in the rhetorical treatises is used largely to indicate a description full of enargeia, and conceived to be part of the battery of rhetorical weapons of an orator. So--misuse of ancient term and end of story? I don't think so. But before we move on to why this isn't the end of the story, let me say why this book will bring such arguments to a head.. ."